FOR decades, former WA professional fisherman and Spearwood resident Don Heather would wince as he saw his colleagues literally throwing a fortune overboard.
He couldn’t get them to understand that the mullet they were using as cheap bait could actually contain a product worth up to $300 a kilo at the market: “They thought I was crazy,” Mr Heather told the Herald.
But last year he had a breakthrough when the captain of one of the local trawlers agreed to keep aside a few of the roe pouches from his catch. Mr Heather, a master food smoker and preserver, and his wife Jean went through the long process of turning the roe into top-quality Bottarga, a delicacy which dates back to Byzantine Greece.
It’s either finely sliced or grated and tastes similar to anchovies.
They sold the product through stalls at local markets and Mr Heather’s fishy friend was amazed by the response.
“The light suddenly went on,” he says.
This year the trawler captain agreed to fill an order for half a tonne of the roe, which the couple are currently salting, curing and smoking before sending it off to Sydney where there’s a big demand because of its quality. Over east the only mullet being turned into Bottarga comes from rivers, which doesn’t give the delicacy quite the salty kick as their ocean-going cousins.
At $240 a kilo, that makes this year’s harvest worth a handy $120,000 — last year the equivalent catch was sold off as $15,000 worth of mostly bait.
Another export opportunity is the Japanese market, where it’s known as Karasumi and also fetches a healthy yen. It was a Japanese connection that helped Mr Heather master the delicacy, which is critical for sales because of the strict demands of Asian chefs about its flavour and presentation.
Mr Heather had become friendly with famous Sydney chef Tetsuya Wakadu, who showed him a properly prepared sample.
“As soon as he cut through the roe pouch, I knew exactly what I had to do,” Mr Heather said. Since then he hasn’t looked back.
by STEVE GRANT